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MLB's Ball Controversy Could Define the 2022 Season

Zachary D. Rymer

Another year, another whirlwind of distrust over just what the heck is going on with Major League Baseball's baseballs.

In the back half of the 2010s, there were questions about whether the ball was juiced as home run rates soared to record highs. Three years after buying Rawlings, which manufactures MLB's baseball, the league responded by intentionally deadening the ball ahead of the 2021 season. However, Bradford William Davis of Business Insider revealed that balls from previous years were also in circulation last season.

In June of last year, MLB also suddenly began enforcing its ban on pitchers using foreign substances on the ball. Add it all up, and consistency hasn't exactly been the name of the game where the baseball has been concerned.

As the New York Mets will be glad to tell you, so it goes in 2022. Nobody more so than right-hander Chris Bassitt, who explicitly blamed the state of the ball for the fact that Mets hitters have already been hit by a league-leading 19 pitches:

And yet, the more common complaint about the ball right now concerns how well it's traveling. Or, more accurately, not traveling.

"I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it just seems like something's different," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, per USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "... There's been a handful that I felt off the bat, the sound, the trajectory, the velocity, that I thought would be home runs that didn't get out of the ballpark."

This makes for a handy explanation for why offense is down at the outset of the 2022 season. Home runs have gone from 1.22 per game in 2021 to only 0.88 this year, while the leaguewide batting average is at an all-time low .231.

To the extent that MLB is requiring balls to be stored in humidors at all 30 stadiums—up from 10 as of last year—there's at least one tangible explanation for why the ball seems to be behaving differently. But as for whether the ball itself is different, the official answer is no.

According to Eno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the commissioner's office sent a memo to teams on March 29 that read in part: "The 2022 season will be played with only balls manufactured after the 2021 production change. No manufacturing changes have been made for the 2022 season.”

It would be easier to take this at face value if the data made it clear that both pitchers and hitters are overstating the problem. At least one side is not doing that.

Do Pitchers Have a Problem? Maybe.

Bassitt isn't the only pitcher who feels like something is off with the baseballs.

"Obviously nobody's trying to hit anybody on purpose in the head or on the neck, shoulder area—nobody," Detroit Tigers righty Michael Fulmer said Wednesday, per David Brandt of the Associated Press. "But with these balls the way they are right now, like last night, it was very easy to let one fly up and in. I’m really trying to hold onto this ball and make sure I don't let one go."

Arizona Diamondbacks righty Ian Kennedy had another theory.

“Honestly, I can tell you right now there are two different baseballs still, I'm not an idiot," he said, per Nightengale. "I've been in baseball my whole life. At the beginning of the year, we were using just one ball, it took the mud better, it was more porous, a rougher feel. The other one is more noticeably different because it's so smooth."

These testimonials would add valuable context for why pitchers are having control problems, but the situation is complicated by the reality that they're broadly doing just fine in that department.

At 0.43 per game, hit-by-pitches are happening at the same frequency as they did in 2021. And percentage-wise, there's been no change relative to last year's post-sticky-stuff environment:

The same doesn't hold true of walks, which are up from 8.2 percent to 8.7 percent. But whereas a pitcher doesn't have to miss the strike zone by much to issue a walk, he does to hit a guy. To that end, the rate of pitches in the outermost reaches of the area around the strike zone (i.e., the "waste" area) are also down from 8.9 percent to 8.6 percent

The danger that Mets hitters are facing may be less of an MLB problem and more of a Mets problem. And one that they know well, as Anthony DiComo of observed:

This is not to blame the victim or to suggest that rival pitchers have it out for the Mets. It more so seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of the scouting report on their hitters, and particularly of the right-handed ones. Their righty batters have suffered 14 of the team's 19 HBPs, but they see more inside pitches than any other team's.

While the data doesn't support that pitchers are having a hard time controlling the ball, that doesn't mean there isn't a problem.

Pitchers aren't saying there's something off with all of the balls. Just some of them. If some balls are indeed smoother, we can't account for how many of them are getting away and putting batters in danger. Nor can we account for how many smoother balls aren't getting away only because the pitcher knew to alter his grip or release, perhaps to his detriment.

Ultimately, even if pitchers' complaints about the ball deserve skepticism, they also can't be dismissed out of hand.

Do Hitters Have a Problem? Definitely.

On Wednesday against the Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals left fielder Yadiel Hernandez clubbed a ball that left his bat with a 30-degree launch angle and 107.3 mph in exit velocity. It had an expected slugging percentage of 3.774.

The result? A fly ball that barely made it to the warning track, where it found center fielder Jesus Sanchez's glove.

To be fair, the wind blowing in from center field at Nationals Park didn't help that ball's cause. But Nelson Cruz, who's seen a thing or two in his 41 years, couldn't help but lean into conspiratoral speculation after the game:

Contrary to the apparent control problems that pitchers are having, this is where the numbers do paint a clear picture: the ball isn't traveling as far in 2022.

The average distance on "barreled" balls like Hernandez's shot is only 378 feet, which is a new low for the eight-year Statcast era. And yes, the trend still holds even if we just compare average barrel distances for the last seven Aprils:

Can this be blamed on the fact that are now 20 more humidors than there used to be? It seems that way.

"The wool yarn inside a baseball is sensitive to humidity," astrophysicist and noted baseball expert Dr. Meredith Wills told Sarris and Rosenthal. "Under dry conditions, it loses structural integrity, and pressure from the covers shrinks the ball. If you add back moisture—say, in a humidor—the ball will expand again, but there's no guarantee the yarn layers will do so symmetrically."

And thus: "In other words, storing those new balls in humidors may be killing offense."

Out of curiosity, we compared how balls are performing this April compared to last April at parks that already had humidors. Not counting the Rogers Centre—which didn't welcome the Toronto Blue Jays back until last July—here's what we found:

Graph via Google Sheets

There have been gains at Citi Field and Marlins Park, but losses everywhere else. This could just be a small-sample-size fluke, but it doesn't exactly ease concerns that the issues with the ball's performance go beyond the fact that there are 20 new humidors.

In any case, hitters have a legit gripe. Their job is hard enough, so the last thing they need is to get screwed even when they do it well.

Where Does MLB Go From Here?

Say what you will about the inherent fairness of MLB's decision to take sticky stuff away from pitchers in the middle of last season, but it did have the desired effect of evening out the playing field. Batters went from hitting .239 before the ban to .248 after it.

Because the problems with the ball that pitchers and especially hitters are experiencing this year aren't all in their imaginations, a similar midseason tweak would seem to be in order.

A report from Rosenthal painted a general picture of satisfaction with the new uniform rosin bag that pitchers can use to enhance their grip. They still aren't allowed to mix rosin with additional grip-enhancing substances like pine tar and sunscreen, but there's at least one advocate for those things to be officially sanctioned.

"You want to talk about Spider Tack and all this other stuff, yeah, get that out of the game, I agree with that," Mets catcher James McCann told Andrew Tredinnick of "But give them an on-deck circle just like the hitter’s have. Let them have a grip on the baseball."

Meanwhile, the problem that hitters are having getting the ball to carry could potentially resolve itself as the weather gets warmer and more humid in the summer months. In those conditions, the humidors will actually dry balls out rather than infuse them with additional moisture. The liveliness of it could increase accordingly.

It shouldn't be too much to ask, though, that MLB remain vigilant and be prepared to make adjustments if hard-hit balls continue to die short of going over the fence. If nothing else, it could look into altering the settings for the 30 humidors.

Sarris and Rosenhal reported that MLB is currently taking a one-size-fits-all approach of 70 degrees and 57 percent relative humidity for 29 of them. As is already the case at Coors Field, it might be better to tailor them to their environments.

Mind you, even changes like these would only be meant to rescue MLB from further embarrassment this year. Because even if it successfully puts an end to paranoia in the ranks and low scoring on the field—which, to be clear, is a big if—bigger changes still may be necessary to prevent further ball-related controversies in the future.

The league's experiments with tackier balls in the minor leagues need to have the desired effect of discovering a ball that pitchers are comfortable using without the help of anything beyond rosin. And if offense never fully recovers as 2022 goes along, the league should consider tossing out the ball it created ahead of 2021 in favor of a new model. This time, MLB might even test the drag on it before deciding it's good to go.

Because MLB owns the manufacturer of its balls, all of the above is well within its power. In the meantime, all that anyone can do is hope the league chooses to do what's right before anything else goes wrong.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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